Player pianoA player piano is a type of piano which plays music without the need for a pianist. Rather than the keys of the instrument being depressed by a human, they are moved pneumatically, electronically, or mechanically. It was invented by Henri Fourneaux in 1863, and was most popular at the beginning of the 20th century, before gramophones were popular.
Player pianos are often known as pianolas, although the Pianola was in fact a tradename for a player piano produced by the Aeolian Corporation.
The music which a player piano is to reproduce is recorded on a long rolled up piece of paper known as a piano roll. This has holes punched in it corresponding to the notes to be played. In some more advanced versions, the dynamics are also indicated.
The most familiar type of player piano is an upright piano with the mechanism which reads and reproduces the notes from the piano roll contained within the cabinet of the piano itself. However, this mechanism was originally contained in a separate cabinet which was placed in front of the keyboard of an ordinary piano in such a way that felt-covered metal "fingers" were located above each note of the piano and struck the key at the appropriate time. More advanced versions of this device are usual in more "serious" uses of the piano (for example, in reproducing rolls made by famous pianists) because it allows high quality grand pianos to be used and because the mechanism does not interfere with the acoustics of the instrument.
Piano rolls are typically punched by a machine in a factory, although it is possible for them to be punched "live" as a pianist plays a standard piano. This has enabled the performances of many musicians who died before the advent of reasonable quality sound recording to be preserved. Gustav Mahler, Claude Debussy, Scott Joplin and George Gershwin are amongst the composers to have had their playing preserved in this way. This use of the player piano gives rise to another name for the instrument: the reproducing piano.
In addition to its important role in preserving old performances, the player piano has been used by some classical composers as a musical instrument itself, including Igor Stravinsky and Paul Hindemith.
The most notable use of the player piano in classical music, however, is in the work of Conlon Nancarrow, who wrote many works specifically for the instrument. Rather than largely sticking to having the instrument reproduce what was possible on a normal piano, as others had done, he got the instrument to play music so rhythmically complex, so dense, and so rapid in tempo, that it could only be reproduced by a machine.
Player Piano is also a novel by Kurt Vonnegut.